Race, Diversity, Spotlight, Criminal Law
September-October 2020

Courageous conversations about race

By Tiana Jean Sanford
Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County, ­Assistant Prosecutor Representative to the TDCAA Board of Directors, and TDCAA Training Committee Chair

A few years ago, a friend posted an online birthday greeting to me: “Happy B-day, Tiana Sanford—the best baby prosecutor in Texas (I still love you regardless of your profession)! Luv Ya!”

            This public posting was from a dear friend I met while in law school, a friend who knows my heart and my passions, a friend with whom I share many philosophies on life in general, and more specifically, criminal justice. She loves me “regardless” of my profession, the way you would love someone regardless of her lack of patience or an affinity for Nickelback. My being a prosecutor was framed as an impediment, not one of the reasons I was loved—actually, I was loved despite it. It didn’t matter how I performed my role as a prosecutor; the mere fact that I serve as a prosecutor was enough.

            Despite its intended meaning, I felt just as much love from this message as from the other birthday wishes I got that day, and I was not offended. In fact, I understood.

Reluctant to be a prosecutor

While it’s common in prosecutor circles to hear, “I’ve always wanted to be a prosecutor!”; “I went to law school to become a prosecutor!”; and “My mom, dad, and sister are prosecutors!” that is not my story. I was reluctant to become a prosecutor. I was raised in a home where the importance of service, community, and justice was always stressed. My parents continuously reminded me that community is essential and should be built on four things: love, accountability, acceptance, and grace. We were called to live in service to our community, prioritizing all of its members’ growth and wellbeing. I was told to be courageous and resolute in this pursuit, knowing that justice was vital to this call. At least twice a day, I walked by a red and white bumper sticker prominently displayed on the refrigerator. It read, “If you want peace, work for justice.” I still see that same bumper sticker every day, now stuck to the refrigerator in my own kitchen.

            With that type of background, it is not shocking that I proclaimed my desire to be a lawyer at an early age, as I wanted to become a voice for the voiceless. In my experience, communities without access to the law—whether in its drafting at the legislature, enforcement in communities, or interpretations in the courts—didn’t have a voice, and this under-representation resulted in fewer resources and protections. I gravitated toward the public interest sector, and while I didn’t know exactly what my career would entail, I knew I didn’t want to be a prosecutor. I didn’t see myself represented or hear my voice in the field. The professional prosecutors I saw were overwhelmingly white and male, and among them I heard dominant voices that did not reflect what I prioritized. On top of that, I saw that people who were disparately impacted by prosecutors’ work overwhelmingly looked like me.

            Despite my perception, I was encouraged by a law professor to intern at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, during which I discovered an incredible opportunity to serve and make a difference. Having now been a prosecutor for more than a decade, I can confidently state this work provides the opportunity to serve communities from a place of love, accountability, acceptance, and grace, all while courageously seeking justice.

A “twoness”

It’s up to us prosecutors to see justice is done and ensure it is done equitably. For me, as a spiritual being having the human experience of being both black and a prosecutor, there is an additional layer of tension. W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of a “twoness” experienced by the “American Negro”: “One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This is one of many voices that so insightfully reflects my experience as a black prosecutor. I am grateful for my work and cherish the opportunities to influence my community significantly, but still, there is a constant friction in my daily commitment to ensuring the justice disproportionately denied to the black community. It is distressing to see my mother, father, cousins, and loved ones reflected in the faces of those most marginalized by criminal justice. I feel an acute calling to persistently chip away at this marginalization.

            By way of examples: A 2012 study found that offenders in Harris County who killed white victims were 2.5 times more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than other offenders. This trend has also been seen in Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland.[1] Another report on race and wrongful convictions published by the National Registry of Exonerations reveals that innocent black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes than innocent white people.[2]

            The righteous conversation surrounding the impact of racial bias on offenders should be accompanied by an equally robust discussion of how racial bias impacts the crime victims we work with as well. Nationwide studies indicate the race of a crime victim results in disparities in criminal justice. One June 2018 study examined homicides reported between 1976 and 2009 and found that cases involving white victims were more likely to be cleared by arrest than those involving black victims.[3] Another study by the Georgetown Law Center reveals data indicating that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. Compared to white girls of the same age, black girls were perceived to need less protection, support, and comfort.[4]

            I have been a part of multiple conversations where black victims are deemed less sympathetic by how “strong,” “mature” for their age, and “independent” they are. I have seen these observations used against their victimhood by the police, prosecutors, judges, and juries in the same way that these characteristics support culpability for defendants.

            You see, if my black mother, black father, black cousins, and black loved ones were to ever be involved in the criminal justice system, it is likely they would be punished more harshly as offenders and receive less protection as victims. 

            As an agent in the criminal justice system, I have a professional duty to examine how race impacts my work. Still, my deep, personal commitment to examining race is highly influenced by my blackness. There is a duality associated with being a black prosecutor, which weighs more intensely now than at any other point in my career. This duality looks and feels different for everyone, but the concept of reconciling contradicting realities is not new.

            Our professions do not define our identity. We are not merely what we do; we bring who we are to what we do. We prosecutors are primary decision-makers in a system that has irrevocable consequences on people’s lives. When I walk into a room and see the relief on the faces of victims and defendants who see themselves reflected in this decision-making process, reflected in me being part of the decision-making process, the necessity for courageous conversations about race is reinforced.

Recent events

The recent response to the killing of George Floyd is yet another example of our communities desperately seeking dialogue pertaining to the acute dangers of racism and brutality against black people. Mr. Floyd’s death, while currently the most widely publicized, is not even the latest instance of police violence against black bodies. His death happened while many of us were “running” for Ahmaud Arbery, processing how Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home, and feeling fury watching Amy Cooper, a white woman, use a bird-watching black man’s race to call police to action.

            I’m gutted, to say the least. Although I have fine-tuned my ability to mourn and be angry while channeling grief into action aimed to assuage these ills, this time is different. This time is harder. There has been less time to rebound between traumatic events, not to mention the depressing backdrop the pandemic is providing these tragedies. It not only intensifies emotions, but it also displays the stark contrasts of how our communities and leaders respond to civil disobedience—or choose to remain silent. 

            I have experienced varying degrees of difficulty in holding space for others to process these events. Being a part of these conversations can be exhausting, depending on the person and the tone of the conversation. I thirsted for more time to process the personal toll the most recent series of high-profile deaths was having on my life, but I had to balance my duties and check in with those whom I supervise. I also had several conversations with colleagues of all races who were themselves struggling and trying to process. I am part of an incredible leadership team, and together we began discussing how best to engage our office in these conversations.

            Two thoughts came up more often than others during all of these conversations. The first was a hesitation to talk about race. The second was surprise and disappointment about our leaders’ hesitation to acknowledge the global conversation about race.   

            You may fall into the category of someone interested in having these conversations, or you may be one who is actively resisting the discussion. There are several ways to resist: choosing to “not see color,” saying that there is “no race but the human race,” seeking to neutralize racism by saying things like, “Everyone experiences obstacles” in their lives, or claiming that focusing on race is in fact racist and that doing so will result in people seeing racism where it doesn’t exist. Whether or not you welcome the opportunity to talk about race, rest assured that you are a part of the conversation, and these discussions are happening with or without you. The criminal justice system is at the center of the national conversation on race. While policing is at the forefront, the role of the prosecutor’s office is no stranger to criticism in the analysis of racial injustice.

My own experiences

I see these injustices in my job every day, and sometimes, they’re directed at me—a prosecutor working to see justice done. I recall speaking with a victim on the phone as a junior felony prosecutor. This was the initial call that we make to victims to introduce ourselves, build rapport, explain the criminal justice process, and forecast what will happen next. There was nothing that set this call apart from the multitude of other calls I made that morning. Later that afternoon, my victim assistance coordinator (VAC) came to my office, sat down, and told me that she had received a call from one particular victim. The victim had asked the VAC if I was black—she couldn’t tell by our conversation but thought that I may be because of my name. My VAC inquired as to why the victim wanted to know, and the victim expressed concern that I might be black. She asked if I was a good attorney, where I went to law school, and whether I would do a good job on the case. I was black after all, so she had to make sure. 

            Around 2009, a guy called our office and threatened to kill President Obama and the prosecutor assigned to the JP court—and I was the prosecutor assigned to the JP court. I couldn’t be sure why this man targeted me, though I was flattered to be in such great company—I volunteered for then-Senator Obama’s campaign in Texas and New Mexico before coming to work at the DA’s office—but the only apparent characteristic that President Obama and I shared was our blackness.

            My elected District Attorney Brett Ligon warns me to never read the comments on media interviews I do for my cases, and he is right. I am often shocked at how many comments aren’t relevant to the article but rather to me. One that stands out was an anonymous person questioning whether I was raised in a two-parent household; another comment implied that of course I wasn’t. (Not that it matters, but I was.) I wonder what prompted the question: Was it that I was a prosecutor, a woman, or a black person? (I have an idea!) Due to the nature of some of these comments, Brett or our first assistant would contact the media and ask that some of them be removed. I wanted the posts to stay up—I think it’s important for people to see them.

            How can we believe that race isn’t significant enough to talk about or downgrade its impact on our work, especially in the face of data including many personal accounts of black people involved in criminal justice?

The way forward

Unpacking racism is not easy, but the criminal justice system is not immune to racist influences on the founding of our systems. It continues to have a negatively disparate impact on the black community and other communities of color. These conversations are righteous and can’t happen just once; they need to be ongoing. No matter where you are on your journey of race discussions, you can expect the following: 

            1) It will be hard. 
            2) It requires empathy. 
            3) It requires vulnerability. 
            4) It requires you to set aside your ego.

You may believe that having conversations about race and its influence on the way people move through life is not significant enough to offset the discomfort. Still, we don’t have the luxury to shy away. As prosecutors, we are regularly exposed to the uncomfortable. It’s an unavoidable part of our job. And here’s the hard truth: If you are not having these conversations, you walk around with a blind spot making you less effective at achieving the justice you seek.

            Every day we are charged with painting justice’s image. We apply facts to established law and form an opinion on whether a specific set of facts in a specific set of circumstances rises to the level of a criminal offense. We make these determinations through our lenses, and we are responsible for evaluating levels of culpability and what is “reasonable.” We then recommend what we feel is an appropriate level of accountability. Knowing what we know about bias, are we working to control the potential for racial bias in determining what is “reasonable?” While reasonableness and the ordinary person is the standard, neither is explicitly defined. In fact, we encourage each other and our jurors to think about what “reasonable” and “ordinary” mean to them.

            Are we also cognizant that those who report crime may have different interpretations of what aggressive or suspicious behavior looks like? Do we realize that officers who discern credibility of witnesses on scene have different interpretations of what fear looks like? Are we paying attention to the language we use surrounding the cases we handle? Are we working to control the potential for racism in our jury pools, or are we turning a blind eye? Even “objectivity” cannot escape the influence of racism just because we label it “objective.”

            Race impacts our profession and can influence the way we interact with victims and defendants. I encourage you to examine every space you access—and thereby have the potential to influence—and question whether it has been swayed by racism. Could it contribute to racism? Acknowledge the importance of this conversation and create spaces both at work and in your personal life where you can listen and contribute. Know these conversations will be easier when you have them with those you know and trust.

            Taking action is essential and looks different for each one of us. You may also explore changing the language you use to speak about race, committing yourself to learning and thinking critically about history, or reading an article or a book written from a perspective different from your own. Examining and discussing race, especially as it pertains to criminal justice, is a muscle. Some of us have used that muscle more than others, so the degrees of soreness will vary. Whatever you do, resist the urge to quit because it’s uncomfortable. As leaders within the system, it’s incumbent upon us to have these crucial discussions, determine how we respond, examine how we can be a resource to stakeholders, and create opportunities for them to do the same.

It must be done

Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Addressing racism and its historical influence on our communities may seem impossible at times. But as prosecutors and professionals in the criminal justice system, we are uniquely situated to navigate discomfort and be part of the solution. We must fully commit ourselves to act with courage. Empathy requires courage. Vulnerability requires courage. Abandoning ego requires courage. Prioritizing justice over self requires courage. 

            You are skilled in the art of communication. You recognize the importance of empathy. You are experienced in making tough calls. You are deeply committed to the concept of justice. No matter what seemingly insurmountable obstacle you encounter, keep going. Courage isn’t foreign to you; it’s the same courage you’ve mustered time and time again to answer ready when called to serve your community. Use it now to influence the spaces you occupy and commit yourself to strive for equitable justice.


[1]  S. Phillips, “Continued Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment: The Rosenthal Era,” 50 Houston Law Review 131 (2012; DPIC posted February 1, 2013).

[2] www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/ Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf.

[3]  Fagan, Jeffrey and Geller, Amanda, Police, Race, and the Production of Capital Homicides (July 12, 2018). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-593, 23 Berkeley J. Crim. L. 262 (2018), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3202470.

[4] https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf.